by Steve Wong –
The Central Methodist Church of Spartanburg welcomes everyone — including members of the LGBTQ community, according to recently released public statements of inclusion.
In effect, this is in defiance of the denomination’s established doctrine that was reaffirmed earlier this year at an international conference specially called to address the issues of gay clergy and gay marriage. In addition, Spartanburg’s first and oldest church says that if the United Methodist Church does not change its official stance on these issues, it may “disaffiliate” itself.
In “Statements of Welcome and Inclusion” released publicly on Tuesday, Sept. 17, Spartanburg’s first and oldest church said:
Central United Methodist Church is committed to loving God and loving neighbor with our whole selves-heart, mind, soul, and strength. We believe that all persons are of sacred worth and dignity as part of God’s creation, as demonstrated by the ministry of Jesus Christ. We therefore welcome all persons into the life and ministry of our congregation. We welcome, affirm, and celebrate people of all races, cultures, ethnicities, ages, sexual orientations, gender identities, socioeconomic status, education, physical and mental abilities, or faith histories.
Accompanying statements said:
We will continue to be in dialogue with The Reconciling Ministries Network (RMN). We pledge to continue our love and support to members of the congregation who may be at a different place in their faith journey.
If great progress is not made in eliminating hurtful language toward LGBTQ+ people and if the United Methodist Church doesn’t move dramatically toward more inclusion of LGBTQ+ people at General Conference 2020, the Church Council of Central United Methodist Church will recommend that the congregation vote to “disaffiliate” with the U.M.C. (Instead of “disaffiliation” the church may be offered an opportunity to join a new more progressive denomination (The Indianapolis Plan). Whatever the mechanism, the Church Council wishes for Central to follow the most inclusive option available at the close of General Conference 2020. In the event of disaffiliation we recognize that other congregations may take different paths among the several options. We pledge to continue missional efforts to the degree that is possible.
The statements were approved by Central’s “Church Council,” which consists of about 30 leadership members. Thom Henson, Chair of the Council, said, “Adopting a statement about who we are was the easy part. We must now be about working together to invite others into our congregation and growing our great church.”
“This has been a long time coming,” the Rev. Tom Norrell said. “Central has for many years been known by word-of-mouth as a gay-friendly church. It was never something that we promoted or publicized, it was just a natural fit with the church’s accepting personality. However, this past February when international church leaders met in St. Louis for a Special Session of the United Methodist General Conference — to specifically take a stand on homosexuality — it resulted in the church reaffirming what is called ‘The Traditional Plan,’ saying homosexuality is incompatible with Christianity. Officially, Methodists ban openly gay clergy and do not allow the clergy to perform same-sex marriages. If I were to perform a gay marriage, I would probably be defrocked.”
As a result of the international adhering to “The Traditional Plan,” many local “progressive” churches around the world have since struggled with the question to remain within the united denomination, come up with a different plan, or to divide the church in some fashion. “This issue has greatly impacted the moral lives of so many people,” Norrell said. “Even here in Spartanburg, we had a very involved straight member who was so distressed over “The Traditional Plan” that he was emotionally immobilized for several days and eventually left Central Methodist and joined another denomination, taking his wife and children with him.
“Right now, this is the biggest issue facing the United Methodist Church, and it may very well cause the church to split,” Norrell continued. “It is my hope that come May 2020, when the leadership convenes in Minneapolis that the issue will again be discussed and maybe change, adopting the “One Church Plan,” which will allow individual churches to set policy on this issue and remain united. Otherwise, we will probably see the church split.”
Currently, there are between 60 and 80 million Methodists around the world, making it the third largest Protestant church. There are 13 million “United Methodists.” There are between 75 and 105 million Baptists and 70-90 million Lutherans. Central United Methodist Church has more than 500 members.
“I am delighted with the decision made by the church council at Central United Methodist Church,” the church’s Lay Leader John W. Simmons, M.D., said. “I believe it is consistent with Jesus and his followers in the first century. Jesus turned no one away. When he challenged them to understand a kingdom concept, he told them to ‘fear not.’ If we say to anyone, ‘you are not welcome,’ then we can’t say we are a welcoming congregation. I am very supportive of the decision made by the Church Council.
“As to the decision about how we will respond to the General Conference meeting in 2020: If the General Conference does not reverse the decision made in February 2019 that says the Methodist Church does not welcome members of the LGBTQ community and excludes them from full participation, then we are saying we do not intend to be painted with that brush. We will seek affiliation with a more affirming, more welcoming connection. In my role as Lay Leader, I have a chance to interact with many of our members, and I know most of them after being a member at Central for 51 years. I believe Central will thrive with the direction it has chosen. Since the Church Council decision I have received a very supportive note from a young adult who grew up in Central. She expressed sincere appreciation for the action taken. For most young adults, homosexuality is a non-issue. A church that is unwelcoming to the LGBTQ community or any other community is an issue that dissuades many young people from participating.”
“As a lifelong member of Central United Methodist Church, I am pleased with the recent statement of inclusion made by our Church Council,” said Pat Patterson, a lifelong gay member of Central. “It reinforces what I have always known about my church — that we are a family and while we may have different opinions at times, we love and value one another. I only wish my mother, former Congresswoman Liz Patterson, was alive to see this moment.
“She spent the last years of her life serving the United Methodist Church on the General Board of Church and Society with the goal of making sure that her church loved all of her children, including me: her gay son,” he continued. “I knew what she was doing was far more important than supporting just me. She had grown and changed as a parent and as a Christian. She knew that our church needed to grow and change as well while still holding true to that greatest of all commandments — to love one another. It was a bold move for her but it set an example for others to follow.
“Central, as the oldest congregation in Spartanburg, has set a bold example with the statement of inclusion but it is what comes later that may require even bolder moves,” Patterson continued. “It is my hope that other congregations will follow Central’s example — sending a message to the leaders of our denomination that will result in more inclusive policies during next year’s General Conference. If there is some split within the church — which I pray does not occur but many see as inevitable — I am proud to know that Central is on the right side of love, inclusion and progress.
“Whatever the eventual outcome, I hope that people who are looking for a welcoming church home in Spartanburg will join us at Central and experience our amazing music & friendly congregation, our programs like STAR and beautiful spaces like Central Park,” Patterson said. “Central United Methodist Church truly lives up to Church’s motto of ‘Open Minds. Open Hearts. Open Doors.’”